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Sergei Rachmaninov

Biography

Born: Apr 1, 1873; Russia   Died: Mar 28, 1943; USA   Period: 20th Century
Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninov, born in Semyonovo, Russia, on April 1, 1873, is today remembered as one of the most formidable pianists of all time and the last truly great composer in the Russian Romantic tradition. Rachmaninov came from a music-loving, land-owning family; young Sergey's mother fostered the boy's innate talent by giving him his first piano lessons. After a decline in the family fortunes, the Rachmaninovs moved to St. Petersburg, Read more where Sergei studied with Vladimir Delyansky at the Conservatory. As his star continued to rise, Sergei went to the Moscow Conservatory, where he received a sound musical training: piano lessons from the strict disciplinarian Nikolay Zverev and Alexander Siloti (Rachmaninov's cousin), counterpoint with Taneyev, and harmony with Arensky. During his time at the Conservatory, Rachmaninov boarded with Zverev, whose weekly musical Sundays provided the young musician the valuable opportunity to make important contacts and to hear a wide variety of music.
As Rachmaninov's conservatory studies continued, his burgeoning talent came into full flower; he received the personal encouragement of Tchaikovsky, and, a year after earning a degree in piano, took the Conservatory's gold medal in composition for his opera Aleko (1892). Early setbacks in his compositional career -- particularly, the dismal reception of his Symphony No. 1 (1895) -- led to an extended period of depression and self-doubt, which he overcame with the aid of hypnosis. With the resounding success of his Piano Concerto No. 2 (1900-1901), however, his lasting fame as a composer was assured. The first decade of the twentieth century proved a productive and happy one for Rachmaninov, who during that time produced such masterpieces as the Symphony No. 2 (1907), the tone poem Isle of the Dead (1907), and the Piano Concerto No. 3 (1909). On May 12, 1902, the composer married his cousin, Natalya Satina.
By the end of the decade, Rachmaninov had embarked on his first American tour, which cemented his fame and popularity in the United States. He continued to make his home in Russia but left permanently following the Revolution in 1917; he thereafter lived in Switzerland and the United States between extensive European and American tours. While his tours included conducting engagements (he was twice offered, and twice refused, leadership of the Boston Symphony Orchestra), it was his astounding pianistic abilities which won him his greatest glory. Rachmaninov was possessed of a keyboard technique marked by precision, clarity, and a singular legato sense. Indeed, the pianist's hands became the stuff of legend. He had an enormous span -- he could, with his left hand, play the chord C-E flat-G-C-G -- and his playing had a characteristic power, which pianists have described as "cosmic" and "overwhelming." He is, for example, credited with the uncanny ability to discern, and articulate profound, mysterious movements in a musical composition which usually remain undetected by the superficial perception of rhythmic structures.
Fortunately for posterity, Rachmaninov recorded much of his own music, including the four piano concerti and what is perhaps his most beloved work, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934). He became an American citizen a few weeks before his death in Beverly Hills, CA, on March 28, 1943. Read less
Rachmaninov: Symphony No 3, Symphonic Dances / Slatkin, Detroit
Release Date: 04/30/2013   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8573051   Number of Discs: 1
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Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker Suite;  Rachmaninov / Argerich
Release Date: 11/04/2008   Label: Deutsche Grammophon  
Catalog: 410616   Number of Discs: 1
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Rachmaninov: Symphony No 2, Vocalise / Slatkin, Detroit Symphony
Release Date: 01/26/2010   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8572458   Number of Discs: 1
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Rachmaninov: Symphony No 1, Isle Of The Dead / Slatkin, Detroit
Release Date: 09/24/2013   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8573234   Number of Discs: 1
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Rachmaninov: Corelli Variations, Piano Transcriptions / Olga Kern
Release Date: 05/11/2004   Label: Harmonia Mundi  
Catalog: 907336   Number of Discs: 1
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Work: Symphony no 2 in E minor, Op. 27

 

About This Work
By 1906, the time when Rachmaninov began work of the Second Symphony, he had become not only a well-known pianist and conductor, but a composer of considerable renown. Ten years before, however, the abject failure of his First Symphony had robbed him Read more of his confidence and plunged him into a dark depression. Unable to compose for the next three years, he finally sought the help of Dr. Nicolai Dahl at the behest of relatives. Dahl used the then-new technique of hypnotism, which rapidly restored the composer's confidence. Shortly after his therapeutic sessions with Dahl, Rachmaninov produced his popular Second Piano Concerto. It must have been with some trepidation, though, that he started work on the Second Symphony, memories of the fate of the First undoubtedly still lingering in his mind.

 Indeed, after composing the first draft of this symphony in 1906-1907, Rachmaninov declared his dissatisfaction with it; he would remark that it was not in his nature to compose symphonies. Nevertheless, he forced himself to rework the piece, and on February 8, 1908, he led the first performance in St. Petersburg. It was enthusiastically received, and by the end of the year, Rachmaninov was awarded the Glinka prize for his new work.

The Symphony opens with a brooding Largo introduction, drenched in mystery and ethereality; it features a motto theme that returns in various guises throughout the symphony. The agitated main theme (Allegro moderato) is followed by an alternate, more ecstatic melody, and then a rather stormy development section. The movement is quite long, especially when -- as is now the practice -- the exposition repeat is taken.

The second movement Scherzo offers a vigorous theme of seemingly brighter mood than that of most of the music in the opening panel. Yet, it is derived from the Dies irae theme, used in the Roman Catholic mass for the dead -- a theme which Rachmaninov used in almost every major composition he wrote. There is a lovely alternate melody, which is related to the motto appearing in the symphony's introduction.

The third movement (Adagio) opens a with a descending theme on strings, one of the composer's loveliest and most memorable creations. There follows an equally attractive melody on clarinet and another for violins and oboe. While to many this movement represents impassioned love music, to others it is profoundly meditative in its warm religiosity. No program was ever attached to the movement or to the Symphony by the composer.

The Allegro vivace finale is happy and triumphant in its luminous main theme, and features a lushly orchestrated, beautiful alternate melody, similar in its ecstatic demeanor to several from the preceding movements. The coda brings on an all-conquering triumphant ending, resolving any lingering doubts spawned by the work's earlier darker elements.

A typical performance of the complete version of the Second Symphony, first movement repeat included, lasts about an hour. Many recordings up to the 1970s, and even a few years beyond, included cuts, eliminating as much as 20 minutes from the score. Rachmaninov himself had been convinced in the early '30s to make cuts in the work, and in the end sanctioned nearly 20 in all. Most performances and recordings of the work today are faithful to Rachmaninov's original score.

 -- Robert Cummings Read less

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